Justin Timberlake Has a Long History of Problematic Behavior

Justin Timberlake's regrettable tweets about the BET Awards constitute just one moment of many that reveal his oblivious perspective on race.

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Complex Original

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Bless Justin Timberlake’s vanilla-flavored heart. In the year of LEMONADE, he’s only now realizing that it’s a new day — a time in which the things he says that the kids would describe as “problematic” won’t just float away unquestioned.

To wit, moments after Timberlake said he was “#Inspired” by remarks made by actor/activist Jesse Williams celebrating blackness and decrying cultural appropriation at this year’s BET Awards, a few Twitter users felt similarly inspired to inform the pop singer that they had not forgotten his trifling past. One tweet yielded an actual response from the *NSYNC heartthrob turned pop star: “So does this mean you're going to stop appropriating our music and culture? And apologize to Janet too.”

Timberlake responded, though all he did was confirm that he likely missed key points made by Williams (while coming very close to echoing "all lives matter" rhetoric): “Oh, you sweet soul. The more you realize that we are the same, the more we can have a conversation. Bye.”

Then came more eye-roll-inducing tweets. Like the one where he plays at being the victim: “I feel misunderstood. I responded to a specific tweet that wasn't meant to be a general response. I shouldn't have responded anyway…”

Or the one where he opts for a patronizing tone rather than a sincere display of humility: “I forget this forum sometimes... I was truly inspired by @iJesseWilliams speech because I really do feel that we are all one... A human race.” (Again with the "all lives" mindset.)

And of course the one where he offers a weak apology: “I apologize to anyone that felt I was out of turn. I have nothing but LOVE FOR YOU AND ALL OF US. --JT”

As mighty white as all this sounds, I don’t believe cultural appropriation is the fundamental issue here. A Southern white boy from Memphis being into R&B isn’t surprising or remarkable in any meaningful way. The same goes for any child born in the 1980s who was inspired by the two of the biggest artists of that era: Michael Jackson and Prince. The white boy making music inspired by black art isn’t what’s wrong with Timberlake. It has little to do with why he enrages many of us at times.

What’s grating about Timberlake and white entertainers like him is that, for all their fandom as it relates to black culture, they don’t seem to give much of a damn about the black people who created that culture and continue to keep it alive and fresh. And, to make matters worse, these entertainers typically benefit and profit from our culture more than we ever do. The problem with people like Timberlake is that they will use their white feet and dance to Michael Jackson-indebted steps only to run back to their ivory towers when convenient.

In Timberlake’s case, this would be February 2004, in the hours that followed his Super Bowl performance with Janet Jackson—the one in which Timberlake pulled at her costume to reveal her breast on live TV. Though both apologized, Timberlake did so as if he had absolutely no idea what was intended to happen during that set—opting instead to place most of the onus on Jackson.

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Jackson told Oprah Winfrey that she felt Timberlake left her hanging “to a certain degree.” Only years later would Timberlake admit to this in interview with Entertainment Weekly, saying, “I wish I had supported Janet more. I am not sorry I apologized, but I wish I had been there more for Janet.”

Timberlake used Jackson’s celebrity to increase his own, and then used his privilege as a white man to let the black woman take the fall for an incident that involved both of them. Many of us will never forget or forgive what he did to Janet Jackson because it’s a reminder of how little capital black people have in this country—even if you’re as popular and as influential a star as Janet Damita Jo Jackson.

Timberlake can tweet about his love for “all of us” and whisper sweet fairy tales about how we’re all one race, but the reality is that we’re not all treated the same. This is literally what Jesse Williams was discussing at the BET Awards. I’m not sure what Timberlake heard, but even if challenged on his tweet, him responding in that smug, condescending tone was unnecessary and unhelpful.

Timberlake’s tweets and his past habits also make clear that sometimes Black people are too forgiving a people. After all, Timberlake is the same person who sat down on the couch at 106 & Park in 2002 to promote his R&B album Justified and, before a largely black audience, professed his love for black girls and other ethnic women with big butts. But just try and reconcile those alleged preferences with the women who have accompanied him on the red carpet.

He’s the same person who mocked Rihanna mom’s Bajan accent during the 2013 American Music Awards.

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And since Prince’s legacy was honored during the entire broadcast of the BET Awards show Timberlake was so carefully watching, let us recall that he had the gall to diss Prince. The first time came in the lyrics of “Give It to Me” and the second time was at the 2007 Golden Globes in which Timberlake accepted an award on Prince’s behalf and proceeded to squat in front of the microphone. If not for that smaller man, though, Timberlake would’ve never reached his commercial peak, considering his 2006 album FutureSex/LoveSounds album wouldn’t exist without the music Prince made in the 1980s.

But because Timberlake has never been challenged for any of this, he must’ve thought he was really saying something on Twitter. Again, this is a testament to how great it is to be a white man. It also reminds many of us how some folks claim to love black people so much, but are quick to be dismissive of us and our concerns.

If Timberlake wants to show genuine love for all, he should probably pause long enough to see that his perspective on the world is not one shared by other groups—notably the ones he draws inspiration from. He could also stand to show solidarity in ways that extend beyond just entertainment. At the very least, he ought to be able to take criticism better.

Until then, fuck his declaration of love. We deserve respect. When it comes to Justin Timberlake, we are long overdue.

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